By Sarah Lounsbury | @saraahlounsbury
Sports Capital Journalism Program
LOS ANGELES – On the biggest stage of the college football season, the Georgia Bulldogs demonstrated emphatically on Monday night that hard work mixed with great talent and skill can pay off in the form of a repeat national championship. All the conditioning and weight-lifting sessions, early-morning practices and hours spent watching film while competing in one of the toughest football conferences in the country proved to be worth it for the Bulldogs.
But on the morning after hoisting the national championship trophy above their heads at SoFi Stadium, Georgia coach Kirby Smart was sure to communicate one message at the end of another national championship season: there’s more to life than just football.
After the most overwhelming display in the history of games for the national championship, the 65-7 victory over TCU that became the largest margin of victory in the history of college football bowl games, Smart joined a select group of coaching legends that led teams at their alma maters to multiple titles: Paul (Bear) Bryant of Alabama. Frank Leahy of Notre Dame. Bernie Bierman of Minnesota. Earl (Red) Blaik of Army.
In a system consumed with rankings, win-loss percentages and the construction of some of the top recruiting classes in the nation, Smart believes that at the end of the day, championships should not define his players or the Georgia football program.
“I don’t want their self-worth or our program’s self-worth to be built on just championships,” said Smart. “I don’t want these young men to be defined by that and I don’t want my career to be defined by that because I know tons of coaches and players out there that didn’t get a championship and had unbelievable careers. If you measure success based on wins in each day, that’s what I want our success to be measured by.”
Smart’s perspective reflects the type of culture he and his coaching staff are building in Athens with brotherhood at the forefront of their focus. For the Bulldogs, this means that they’re playing for something bigger than themselves. They’re playing for each other.
“Selflessness is the team DNA,” said defensive back Javon Bullard, whose two interceptions and fumble recovery helped hold the Horned Frogs to seven points. “It’s one of our DNA traits. We’ve got so many selfless guys in the lockerroom.”
For tight end Brock Bowers, that means making blocks to create a path for his teammate to score a first down. “If it comes down to me blocking somebody for my brother behind me,” Bowers said, “I’ll just do whatever I need to do to get yards, get first downs, get touchdowns, win the game.”
For outside linebacker Nolan Smith, that means preaching on the sidelines and encouraging his teammates despite having to sit out the season due to injury.
This unbreakable team bond appears to be evident in every Georgia player, whether on the sidelines or on the field. It’s this feeling of being a part of a second family consisting of over one hundred “brothers” that makes leaving the Georgia football program so difficult for its players.
“I don’t care what locker room you’ve got in the NFL, there’s never that feeling of brotherhood because the guy across from you is trying to take your job,” said Smart. “In our locker room, it’s so different. And to be around that last night, it appears to me that we built something special because these guys want to come back.”
The pride Georgia football players instilled in each other paid off early and often on Monday evening.
“It’s when you can look to your brother and just know that you guys are really connected, and you can trust him to do your job,” said sophomore defensive back Kelee Ringo. “You almost feel unstoppable when it’s like that.”
TCU head coach Sonny Dykes noticed that this sense of pride among Georgia’s players was a difference-maker.
“They’ve got a really good football team,” said Dykes. “The thing I was impressed about Georgia coming into the game is they played hard all the time and they played well, and really had a lot of pride in their performance in the way they played.”
Far beyond the achievement of becoming the 14th repeat champion in major-college football history, what’s more important to Smart is the way his players carry themselves, the way they treat others and the type of leaders they are, molding them into great human beings outside of the football field.
“Whether we win or lose is irrelevant,” said Smart. “But the rest of your life you will be remembered, were you a captain? Were you there for everybody? Did you stand by this team? Did you impact them in a way without being on the field?”
Towards the end of the national champions’ press conference, Smart looked like he was getting choked up as he talked about what’s most important to him. Spoiler alert: it’s not football.
“I know my why every day,” said Smart. “It starts with my family. It starts with my wife over there and our kids. And these men, because there’s not one thing I wouldn’t do for these men.”